Young researchers preach open access, yet many don't practice

Early-career researchers in the UK are less likely to choose open access over subscription journals.

  • Ivy Shih

Credit: keith morris / Alamy Stock Photo

Young researchers preach open access, yet many don't practice

Early-career researchers in the UK are less likely to choose open access over subscription journals, citing high costs and low citation impact.

22 May 2017

Ivy Shih

keith morris / Alamy Stock Photo

Most British scientists agree that academic research should be free to everyone, but fewer than half have published in open-access journals, and some never will, a recent survey has found. Among the least represented group in open-access publishing are academics under 35.

The survey, published in Scientometrics, assessed the perceptions of 1,800 researchers at 12 public research universities. Funding bodies in the United Kingdom are increasingly mandating that the research they support is made freely accessible.

For many early-career researchers keen to climb the academic ladder through publication in high-impact journals, open access is often overlooked, says Yimei Zhu, who authored the paper as part of her PhD at the University of Manchester. “There is the belief that publishing in a journal of high reputation can help you secure a job, so open access is probably not something they would think of. But these are traditional ideas and people’s minds need to change.”

Mixed signals

Zhu sent out her survey in June 2013, a few months after the government organisation funding scientific research, Research Councils UK (RCUK), introduced the requirement that grant recipients make their research publically available within a five-year transition period.

“It was good timing for me to investigate whether academics were aware of this open-access policy in relation to experience with open access,” Zhu, now a lecturer in digital media at the University of Leicester, told Nature Index.

Her results were contradictory. While 93% of respondents felt open-access science was important, and 55% agreed that it would bring citation advantages, only 41% had published articles in an open-access journal. Researchers under 35 as well as PhD candidates, master’s students and research assistants had the least experience with open-access publishing. Those who were aware of RCUK’s policy, however, were more likely to have tried open access.

Zhu’s results show that “there is a relative lack of knowledge on open access,” says Virginia Barbour, director of the Australasian Open Access Strategy Group at Queensland University of Technology. “It’s clear that institutions need to do a better job to equip academics with knowledge regarding innovations in publishing, including on open access,” she says.

Since Zhu conducted her survey in 2013, the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced a policy requiring research be open access to be considered in the upcoming 2021 Research Excellence Framework.

Gold or green

Open-access publishing follows one of two routes. The ‘gold’ system makes articles free to read as soon as they are published, but typically requires researchers to pay publishers a hefty processing fee upwards of US $3,000.

The ‘green’ system relies on researchers archiving published articles in public repositories, for free. However, publishers can sometimes prohibit researchers from sharing their final papers, only allowing them to submit earlier drafts that have not been peer reviewed.

The researchers surveyed by Zhu were more likely to view gold open access as having a citation benefit than green, but were deterred by the high cost of gold.

This can place young researchers and PhD Students in a difficult position, says Zhu. Many lack the support to cover the costs that accompany gold publishing. Yet they feel under pressure to publish in a journal with a high impact factor and get ahead early in their career. A recent webinar on a staff survey conducted by Richard White and Melanie Remy at the University of Otago echoed these concerns.

Barbour argues that the issue of financial barriers is misguided. “A lot of funders can provide support for open-access publishing.”

The RCUK allocates money to cover open-access processing fees for the research it funds. And some publishers have signed agreements with universities exempting them from paying such fees.